There is little doubt that the world is going through a period of turbulence requiring good understanding of dangers and credible ideas for the future. A World Without War by Sundeep Waslekar offers an answer. The book is a wide-ranging and highly erudite treatment of the existential threats to the humankind today as well as an intellectual offer of the ways forward. It does not aim to propose a new philosophy or theory but, rather, stimulate the necessary debate for a fundamental change. It quotes the relevant philosophers and philosophies extensively while avoiding an explanatory theory and maintaining the activist edge that remains central in the book.

The book also offers interesting reading with a number of less known but highly illustrative stories, such as the interesting historical insights into the preparations for and conduct of Hague peace conferences of 1899 and 1907 – and about Peter Rosegger, an Austrian German nationalist poet who was in 1913 a top contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature that eventually went to Rabindranath Tagore.

War is a matter of choice

One of the strongest points of the book is in its clear and sharp diagnosis. It starts with a clear definition of the threat of the modern “weapons of final destruction” (an apt term used consistently in the book). Then it offers a sober and merciless criticism of nationalism that has proven to be the strongest ideology of modern era. It has destroyed empires and defeated communism – and has recently mutated into a variety of forms that represent a most serious threat to humankind today.

And then there is war as a matter of choice. There is no inevitability in the path to a war. War is always a matter of choice. And the danger of miscalculation is always there. For example: There was enough knowledge and powerful reasons against the World War I prior to August 1914. In this context it is worth observing Henry Kissinger’s explanations, pointing to the misjudgements of the great powers, their lack of understanding of lethality of weapons and the absence of clear definition of war aims. We see many of these mistakes today, the difference being that “sleepwalking” into a full-fledged world war among great powers today could well be terminal. Therefore, it absolutely has to be avoided.

Some positive examples that demonstrated that alternatives are possible are discussed in the chapter on the “Dawn on the Horizon.” In this chapter, Waslekar rightly emphasises the achievements of the leaders like Willy Brandt as well as Reagan and Gorbachev. The transformation of mind of Ronald Reagan who started as the “star wars warrior” and ended with a historical dictum that “nuclear war cannot be won and must therefore never be fought” made a lasting impact. It is of great historic importance and motivates the leaders today – as witnessed in the most recent international reaction to the Russia’s playing with words about the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

Social contract of peace

The chapter “Before Daylight – Shaping Peace, Preventing Wars” gives a helpful summary of ideas about peace as well as about co-existence among nations advocated by great thinkers. It then continues with the institutions designed to preserve peace. The author asks whether the UN has, “in the pursuit of its development agenda ignored its peace and security objectives.” This is a valid question. The UN is not doing its primary job which is preservation of peace but is more and more focusing on dealing with the humanitarian consequences of wars. While humanitarian work is important, it belongs to humanitarian agencies while the UN has to remember why it was created in the first place.

In the penultimate chapter and in the final chapter “Morning at Last: A World Without War” the author opens the critical issue of social contract that is necessary in today’s world. The issue is discussed from several angles. Waslekar explains the “social contract” as an idea and a process of transformation rather than a contractual arrangement. There are many obstacles to the process of transformation in the spirit of a new social contract. They include not only the direct, interest based opposition but also obfuscation and opportunism. The book is justly critical of the International Court of Justice for its ambiguous opinion on nuclear weapons and of states for their “vaccine nationalism” at the time of Covid-19 pandemic. Above all, a new social contract requires a critical mobilisation of civil society, both within states and internationally.

The processes of change like the ones required in our era call for innovation. The idea of a third Hague Conference suggested by Waslekar is an interesting innovation. The author suggests that “only if a great power takes the initiative...the idea could translate into reality.” This is an interesting position, inviting further discussion. Is China with its “Global Security Initiative” making itself a possible initiator of something big and important? Is India going to use its G-20 presidency in 2023 for a new initiative? Will Brazil in 2024 use its presidency of G-20 for such a purpose? The US seems to be preoccupied with building alliances and with the summits of democracies. Russia has taken the path of aggression. This has reduced the number of potential candidates and opened a wide space for initiatives from the Global South.

An alternative idea is the UN Summit of the Future proposed by the UN Secretary-General in his report Our Common Agenda in September 2021 and accepted by the UN member states earlier this year. In September 2022 the UN General Assembly decided to convene the Summit of the Future in 2024 and to have a preparatory ministerial conference in autumn of 2023. A High Level Advisory Board (HLAB) was appointed by the Secretary General in March 2022 to prepare “bold proposals” that could help the process of preparations. HLAB is considering a number of questions discussed in Waslekar’s book and will have proposals for change with regard to international financial system, environment / climate governance, international peace and security (including nuclear disarmament) etc. The time seems ripe for innovation at the level of global security and cooperation.

The book ends with references to lofty ethical concepts like Ubuntu and, importantly, with a reminder of the bold, ethically motivated initiatives of leaders of the past who were able to change the course of history into a positive direction. It argues for the need to mobilise public opinion to deprive nationalist policies of popular support and legitimacy. This calls for further political debate that should lead to a fundamental reorientation. At a time when nationalism is strong and even on the rise almost everywhere, including in most of the major powers, this is a daunting task. But – who knows? We live at a time that could prove to be “an inflection point of history.” And such a time provides strong reasons for an ethically superior and practically better alternative – for a world without war.

Danilo Türk is former President of Slovenia and currently UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board Member on Multilateralism.

A World Without War: The History, Politics and Resolution of Conflict, Sundeep Waslekar, Harper Collins.